Is there such a thing as accidental film noir? It’s a deliberate genre, but Justin Lerner’s first movie, “Girlfriend,’’ seems to discover what it’s doing as it goes. It doesn’t work, and eventually the charm of his subdued ambition fades. What begins as an absorbing exercise in glum atmosphere turns mild, meek, and desperate as the stakes rise.
Lerner opens with a sideways idea. His would-be dupe is a young man with Down syndrome, named Evan (Evan Sneider). Evan lives with his mother (Amanda Plummer) and makes the daily trudge with her to their jobs in a small-town diner. That relationship is captivating. Plummer and Sneider have something together. She looks wiped out and frustrated, but she radiates maternity. With her, it’s unclear what to expect, which has always made her an interesting, dangerous actor. Here, you sense stress, pride, and affection. The bond between them feels right: They love each other. That’s a movie, one whose difficult tone Lerner understands. But he abandons that too soon in order to pursue a more elusive film.
Evan likes to drop in on a single mother named, improbably, Candy (Shannon Woodward). He hides in enough bushes to know she has men and money troubles. Her skuzzy baby-daddy Russ (Jackson Rathbone), for instance, writes rubber mortgage checks. Evan has just come into a windfall that he wants to share with Candy, who’s on the verge of foreclosure and unsure how to express thanks for Evan’s generosity, particularly after he’s misconstrued what he and Candy have.
Lerner wants to take the film to some dark place. But he never finds a natural way to collide desperation, lust, and loneliness. The collision he does produce lacks both tragedy and the drama he’s straining for. You feel a screenplay calling the shots when you should feel life bearing down. Woodward tries to give an honest performance. Her eyes flash a surprising disgust when Evan tells Candy he’s her boyfriend. What a mess she’s in. What a mess this character is. She has no family or pals who can talk to or help her? How does a woman this tough also go so weak so conveniently?
The film’s allegedly set in Wayland, but only Sneider seems as if he comes from anywhere. Sneider played a smaller version of the same part in a better short film Lerner made a few years ago. That film had the sense of place this one needs. Sneider’s got a bowl haircut that leaves a curtain of bangs over his forehead. It confers an innocence complicated by Evan’s need to be touched and his rage at rejection.
At some point, Evan expresses a woebegone wish to abandon his condition and leave his body. He should reconsider. That body’s an amazing instrument. After Plummer, Sneider is the only authentic thing in the film, and Evan is the one character whose ache Lerner really understands.
“Girlfriend” Not rated. At Coolidge Corner Theatre: B
Filmed in his hometown of Wayland, writer/director Justin Lerner’s “Girlfriend” finds the first-time filmmaker tackling a tough subject, and mostly succeeding.
Written for and starring Lerner’s high school friend, Evan Sneider, the movie has heart to spare. And although Sneider’s character shares some traits with the actor — they’re both named Evan and have Down syndrome — this isn’t a documentary; Sneider deserves great credit for giving a complex, moving performance in his first lead role (he previously appeared in Lerner’s short, “The Replacement Child”). Lerner’s seemingly brought out the best in his buddy while navigating a subject we hardly see in cinema: a yearning for normality by someone society shuns.
Evan lives with his mother (Amanda Plummer) in an economically depressed town (Wayland is used beautifully by cinematographer Quyen Tran), where the two toil at a greasy spoon. Their life together isn’t perfect, but it works. Evan loves television soap operas (he passionately talks his patient mother through the plots); she loves him, unconditionally.
But Evan, now about 30, desires more than just his mother’s love. One night, she asks him to make a wish. Since we’ve already seen him secretly pining for Candy (Shannon Woodward, TV’s “Raising Hope”), an attractive, barely employed single mom, we’re not surprised to learn he wants a girlfriend.
When he comes into a large sum of money, he takes it to Candy, who’s facing the possibility of eviction. As she hesitantly accepts his offer of support, they begin a complicated emotional entanglement, the two of them desiring different things — or possibly the same.
Sneider and Woodward have tremendous chemistry together, and Lerner allows Evan and Candy’s tentative relationship to evolve in a naturalistic manner. Still, Lerner has worked in a wild-card named Russ (Jackson Rathbone, “Twilight”), an auto mechanic, and Candy’s volatile ex. Some late-film developments dip into melodrama. But the darker elements never overtake the brightness that Sneider brings to his difficult role as a gentle soul with big dreams.